In a new piece for the Cook Political Report called “A Wave Is a Comin’,” Amy Walter—the nonpartisan political newsletter’s national editor—writes that political junkies might be making a version of the same mistake many of us made in 2016. Last year, we doubted Donald Trump had any chance to win the presidency; this time, we might be underestimating the odds of a giant Democratic “wave” that causes Republicans to lose the House.
To discuss 2018, I spoke by phone with Walter recently. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we talked about the importance of competing all over the map, why the Senate—regardless of the political environment—will be so hard for Democrats to flip, and the unknown ways in which sexual misconduct might shake up Washington.
Isaac Chotiner: What about the data you are looking at makes you think people are underestimating the possibility of a huge wave?
Amy Walter: I think the first place to start is to define what a wave is, especially in a midterm election year. What a wave means is that you have to take your traditional thinking about campaigns and about what normally happens in a traditional election, and you have to caveat those. So, for example, in a midterm year, if the playing field is relatively even, Republicans usually have an advantage on turnout, simply because their voters are older, and less likely to be people of color. Those are the people that come out and vote.
In a wave year, that advantage no longer becomes as important because you are going to get more people voting Democratic, younger people voting Democratic, etc.
So are you saying more Democrats will come out and vote, or rather that you see signs typical Republican voters might flip?
If we look at Virginia, turning out and voting. They are turning out and voting for Democrats in places Democrats have won previously. And that is the argument that Republicans make, which is a fair one: If you look at Virginia, Republicans lost a lot of legislative districts, but they were in places Hillary Clinton had carried, and people had already been accustomed to voting for Democrats. That’s a lot different than winning people over in areas Trump carried. Still, a Democratic candidate did win in a district Trump carried in 2016, and which Republicans won at the congressional level. What that said to me was that Democrats are really engaged, and in those districts Trump carried, overall, Democrats weren’t putting up quite the fight they were in the Clinton districts. We don’t know if more competitive Democrats would have been able to pick up those seats.
It seems like the upshot of all this is that in a wave-type atmosphere, you should try to compete in as many places as you can.
Correct. That’s why they call it a wave. If you put your surfboard out in the water, not because you are the best surfer, not because you have picked just the right line, but just by being in the right place at the right time, you can get carried to shore. Another thing that defines it is that an incumbent who for years has been able to hold onto a district because they have their own personal brand—“people know me, people are comfortable voting for me,” they think they have something of a defense. You have built some sort of bulwark up against the tide. If the wave is big enough, it still knocks out those defenses.
We don’t know yet, and the challenge for Democrats is seeing how big a wave they need. Just because they get a wave doesn’t mean they get a majority.
What is your estimate on what the national House vote would have to be to flip it?
When my colleague David Wasserman looked at the numbers, especially since 2010, and the redistricting of 2010, Democrats win fewer seats than their overall total vote by about 4 percent. So if you got 49 percent of the vote, they would only get 45 percent of the seats. So to get a bare minimum you need to hit 54 percent of the vote nationally. To feel comfortable, it would be double digits.
Which is where some of the national polls have been though, right?
How drastically does a Roy Moore loss help the odds of Democrats winning the Senate?
I don’t know is my short answer, but it does put a lot of focus on the other open seat that Republicans hold, Tennessee, and especially what kind of Democrat and what kind of Republican come out of there. Because what it suggests to me is that even in these red states, the wrong candidate on the Republican side could lose.
But this is likely really wrong. Like mortal sin wrong.
I know, exactly! In quote-unquote “enemy territory,” you need to have the following things: a really good candidate on your side, a really bad candidate on the other side, and a good environment. So that’s the challenge for Democrats.
I don’t really have a specific question here, but you analyze politics for a living, and I was wondering if anything comes to mind about what might come of this string of sexual misconduct stories about politicians.
I’m glad you asked. I have been thinking a lot about this too. I first came to Washington in 1991, and it was like my third week in Washington when the Anita Hill testimony started, and you could literally feel the sea change in Washington in that time. You had a record number of women the next year win seats in the House and the Senate. They dubbed 1992 the Year of the Woman.
You also had someone accused of sexual misconduct win the presidency that year.
Yeah, right. So you either say this feels a lot like 1991, and maybe this is what we see: More women running. But to your broader point: I don’t think we know where this goes. The Weinstein story came only six weeks [ago], and we have had much disruption and impact since then. The Anita Hill story was a galvanizing moment; this feels like we are going to have a new galvanizing moment every 15 minutes.